Republican Chas Roemer and Democrat Donald Songy typify some of the gaping philosophical splits in this year’s races for Louisiana’s top school board.
Roemer, who is seeking his second term on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, pegs Songy as a liberal.
“He has a very liberal background and liberal base of support,” Roemer said.
“I have a conservative background and a reform base of support,” he added.
Songy said, unlike Roemer, he supports traditional public schools.
“I don’t think that turning them over to charter schools is the answer to the situation,” he said, a reference to Roemer’s support for charters and other alternatives.
“There is a lot of concern about his ideas,” Songy said of his opponent.
Roemer, who led in the Oct. 22 primary, faces Songy in the District 6 runoff for BESE, which sets policies for public schools statewide.
The district includes much of East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes as well as Livingston, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.
The contest is one of three runoffs for the board, and will help determine the future of public schools for the next four years.
Early voting began Saturday and continues through the close of business on Saturday.
Roemer, a 41-year-old Baton Rouge businessman, is backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Alliance for Better Classrooms, or ABC.
The group, which includes Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby, favors sweeping changes in public schools.
Songy, 60, former superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system who lives in Prairieville, is backed by the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education.
That group includes school board members, superintendents and teacher unions.
It is generally critical of charter schools, letter grades for public schools and a 2010 law that will link teacher evaluations in part to the growth of student achievement.
And those kind of views, Roemer said, are part of the problem with trying to improve public education in Louisiana.
“They seem to come up with the same old solutions, which is more time and more money,” Roemer said.
“There could not be a clearer distinction between me and my opponent,” he said.
Songy has criticized what he calls Roemer’s newness to public schools.
“I spent 38 years in education, very successful years,” Songy said.
“I want to take the experience and the knowledge and the success I had in Ascension Parish and make that work for the rest of the state,” he said.
Roemer led in the primary with 45 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Songy and 27 percent for former teacher Beth Meyers.
Roemer led in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes.
Songy finished first in Ascension Parish and Meyers did so in Washington Parish.
Songy takes hope that, in the primary, 55 percent of voters cast ballots for someone other than the incumbent and that Republican Meyers endorsed his Democratic bid.
“I think it is huge,” Songy said of Meyers’ backing.
Brigitte Nieland, a vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the runoff is a bonafide contest.
“I think Chas has a race,” Nieland said.
“I think the numbers are in his favor but he knows he has to work for it,” she said.
Voter turnout for the primary election was 36 percent and is expected to be lower in the runoff.
“We are putting much more of an effort on energizing our volunteer base knowing there is less on the ballot than previously,” Roemer said.
Songy backers are using phone banks to fire up educators who, they say, should be concerned about the direction of public schools if Roemer and a Jindal-dominated BESE takes office in January.
Roemer, who declined to give a runoff spending estimate, is expected to enjoy a huge financial advantage in the runoff.
Songy said he plans to spend about $20,000.
“I think things are looking good for me,” he said.